Beginning with GA..
GE and Beyond
GI and GO
GO and GR
GU to HA
Review-So You Think
So You Think...I
So You Think...II
So You Think...III
So You Think...IV
Seattle Bee I
Seattle Bee II
Open Worlds I
Open Worlds II
Open Worlds III
From the Seattle Spelling Bee... I
Bill Long 4/7/11
From Eric to Gravigrade, and Many Others
In other essays I have argued that spelling prowess and word learning is an important mode of knowledge creation and mastery. It often is too overwhelming to pursue mastery of a list of difficult spelling words, however, because the possible journeys one might embark on in getting to the bottom of one single word are so immense and unrelated to the next word that one might never really get "through" a list of 20 challenging words. More useful for me, in general, are studies that already are somewhat confined either by subject matter (for example, Ivory Coast politics and economics from independence to today) or physical location.*
[*A method I have developed for the "physical location" approach to knowledge creation begins with a particular landmark or place I want to study, say Chapman College in Orange CA. I will find it on the map, realize that it is between the mile-apart Walnut and Chapman Avenues, and then use that one mile wide grid as a means of discovering everything within that mile from the Pacific Ocean to, say, the border with Arizona. Thus, in pursuing this method, I might stop and learn about Melrose Abbey (four miles West, between Chapman and Orangewood--the continuation of Walnut) and continue further West. I would note that the Crystal Cathedral is on the grid one mile to the South, between Chapman and Lampson, and so I could study that on another occasion. When I say "study that," I mean to look at the history of the institution, the events that take place there, controversies surrounding it, the way that that institution has functioned in the development of American religion in the past 40 years, etc. Thus, each "mile-wide" grid might have multiple "stops," with multiple opportunities to investigate a variety of American/international institutions in quite some depth. In fact, this approach will form the basis for my proposal on modern knowledge study/creation which will, I hope, see the light of day soon].
Yet the Seattle Spelling Bee is such a high-quality affair, filled with a very limited vocabulary (usually less than 75 words) and arresting words that usually about 20 of them are worthy of a comment. In this and the next two essays I will first focus on a "shorter" method of studying some of the words, but then will devote an entire essay to the way one might really get "lost" in knowledge seeking through examination of the word "bosmina."
No, this is not a personal name, at least in the definition given in the Bee. Though four letters long, it tripped up all spellers. As with most robust legal/historical terms (this one is from Irish history), it has been spelled at least half a dozen ways since it was introduced in the late 16th century. The OED simply defines it as "a blood-fine," with the first appearance (1587): "When earike (now "eric") or composition is made among the people for anie murther." We note our word, of course, but my mind also went to "composition." It isn't hard to spell, but it is used in a way that may not be familiar to us. The sentence emphasizes two modes for "settling" a violent crime: "earike" and "composition." "Composition" is defined (definition 12 in OED) as "The settling of a debt, liability or claim by some mutual arrangement." That is, not every murder had to be atoned by money; perhaps there were other ways of compensation, such as service or restitution, especially when the offending party had no money. I think it is a use of the term "composition" that ought not to be lost.... One of the quotations said that it was an "utter abomination" to England in the 16th century. Thus, another door is opened (why such an abomination? Perhaps because it allows other ways to "pay off" murder than the death of the perpetrator?), and this invites a consideration of the history of how murder was considered (offense against a family; offense against the society) but I can't go down that road now. Eric can even be used in literary contexts. From 1849: "All the dead Heaped on the field..Were scarce an eric for his head."
At first glance, croppy seems like a word one can quickly handle. The OED defines it as "one who has his hair cropped short." Kind of a "duh!" definition, but then it continues: "esp. the Irish rebels of 1798, who wore their hair cut very short as a sign of sympathy with the French Revolution." Ah, now we are getting somewhere. Just as there were the "sans culottes" in the French Revolution, who were the common people of Paris and so named because they didn't wear the upper class breeches or culottes, so here we have the nearly "sans cheveau" Irish sympathizers, but in fact they were "avec les cheveux courts." Well, this isn't the place to go into the Irish Rebellion, but a quotation from 1861 took me further: "The wretched 'croppies' were scourged, pitch-capped, picketed..and shot." I hand't run into 'pitch-capped' as a form of torture or punishment, so that beckoned. Sure enough, it was what it sounded like: "to torture a person with a pitch-cap"--a cap lined with hot pitch. Since the hair was short, the pitch was directly applied to the skull..."the English tortured the rebels and their associates by giving them a 'pitch cap' by pouring boiling tar on their heads and then pulling the hardened tar off." We even have the name of the military person, Thomas Honam, who was credited with developing this infernal device. What is interesting is that the term "pitch-cap" originated in medicine at the end of the 16th century to signify "a dressing containing pitch, used as a depilatory for the scalp, especially in cases of ringworm."
The memory of inhumane punishments almost never dies. Thus, it isn't surprising to find this line, 89 years after the rebellion, in the Catholic World, "scarcely one you will meet, farmer or peasant...has not had an ancestor who was hung or pitch-capped in those evil old days." Well, the vigor of an 1864 description tells us why the memories never faded: "The ignorant and deluded peasants who were tarred, pitchcapped, singed, and flogged until their entrails fell out..." This is the good old Europe, in the time of the "Enlightenment"...
But we can take a further word journey before getting to the third word (remember, these are my short word journeys!). The OED definition called it a depilatory. The noun depilation is derived directly from the Latin depilationem--to take the hair away. But we also have a little-used Greek-derived term that says about the same thing. We have the English word psilosis from the Greek psiloun, "to strip bare, make bald." Thus, both the Greek and Latin words give birth to different English words, which mean the same thing: psilosis and depilation. So, this pair joins my growing list of Greek/Latin terms meaning the same thing in English, including terms such as ichthyophagous and piscivorous. I also just discovered that the Greek word entomos, from which we get entomology (the study of insects) is equivalent to the Latin insectus (it means to "cut in"--designating the "cuts" or segments of an insect's body), and we only have the word "insect," even though the study of insects is not "insectology..."
Actually, just to complete our word picture, psilosis also adopted a meaning in the late 19th century, in the heydey of the study of ancient Greek grammar in the English-speaking world, having to do with the "making bear" of the first syllable of a word. What this means is that a "plosive" is substituted for an "aspirated" or "fricative" consonant, such as a "p" for a "ph"-- or of smooth breathings for rough breathings (an 'h' sound); this process was called psilosis. But, again, no time here to get into linguistics or further into the nature of Greek words.
I need one more essay of "short" expositions.